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Family of inmate who died from COVID-19 say state failed to prevent tragedy

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    Honolulu (KITV) — The family of an inmate of a Hawaii prison who died of COVID-19 believe it could have been prevented. And now they want the state to be held accountable for what they call “unacceptable” conditions and callous policies at Halawa Correctional Facility.

The Department of Public Safety (PSD) reports six inmates died at Halawa last month after being diagnosed with COVID-19. The sister and daughter of one of those inmates say he served 30 years in Saguaro Correctional Center and was transferred to Halawa for scheduled release on Feb. 20. They asked we do not disclose his identity, but they wanted to share their story because they still have not gotten any answers from the state on how this tragedy happened.

“He was counting down the days, he says, I only have blah, blah, X amount of days. I said, Oh are we counting already? It’s countdown. You know, I was kind of joking with him. And he says, of course, we’re counting down,” said Luana Abilay, who says she spoke to her father regularly. He was excited to be reunited with his family in Maui and meet his grandchildren. Their last phone call was on December 18th, she says he was concerned about a lack of safety protocols.

“I said, so if somebody test is positive, what happens? Oh, they wait until you know, there’s a place for them to go. And then they separate us. But by then we’re all together still,” Abilay said.

Weeks went by without another call and she began to worry. On January 20th, Abilay says Pali Momi Medical Center and Halawa Correctional Facility called her about doing a video visit with her father but gave her no details. Five days later, he spoke to her from a hospital bed.

“He says, babe, I got COVID. And I started to cry immediately,” she said. “How long have you been at the hospital because nobody’s telling me anything. And he said, January 3. … Why didn’t anybody call me?”

Abilay believes it should not have taken three weeks for PSD to contact her. She’s been her father’s power of attorney for years and is listed as his emergency contact. The family believes the state mishandled the case and should be held accountable.

“We were deprived the last weeks of early thinking outside the box for care or early looking for better doctor or whatever we could have done,” Abilay said. “They don’t need to be any more isolated than they have to be. Nobody deserves to die alone, to be alone, to feel alone.”

“I don’t care if he’s an inmate at the time is that we should have been notified. My brother should have known that his family was there for him, you know, and that we cared about, this is not acceptable,” said Charla Manuel, the inmate’s sister.

Manuel says she’s spoken to other families of inmates who contracted COVID-19 and some who’ve died. They want the state to be transparent with them and to show compassion.

“I’m no longer going to accept I don’t know from these people. This is my brother’s death, I’m telling you it will not be in vain.” Manuel said. “We need to make noise, we need to stick together. So changes are made. So other families do not have to go through this.”

A Department of Public Safety spokesperson said they cannot comment on specific cases due to privacy laws and referred KITV-4 to its website dps.hawaii.gov/blog/2020/03/17/coronavirus-covid-19-information-and-resources for its pandemic plan. PSD’s Medical and Health Care Services Policy and Procedures (Chapter 10) can be found on its Corrections P&P webpage here: dps.hawaii.gov/policies-and-procedures/pp-cor.

PSD reports 3 active cases and that 540 inmates have recovered from COVID-19.

Pali Momi Medical Center issued this statement to KITV-4: “We have specific policies and procedures in place relating to patients who are prisoners in the custody of law enforcement that are strictly followed to ensure the safety of the patient as well as our care providers, staff and other patients in our medical center. All matters related to a prisoner admitted to our hospital, such as visitors, are managed by the law enforcement agency responsible for the prisoner.”

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